Danny Burstein on the Devastating Loss of His Wife, Fellow Broadway Star Rebecca Luker (Guest Column)

Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein
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Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein at the opening of 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical' at Boston's Emerson Colonial Theatre in June 2018

In a deeply personal essay for The Hollywood Reporter, the Tony-nominated 'Moulin Rouge' star reflects on the "empty, dark abyss" left behind by his wife of more than 20 years, who died of complications of ALS in December.

There is a void.
Where once there was sunlight.
There is a void.
Where once there was a marriage.
There is a void.
There is now an empty, dark abyss that has taken the place of the warm, comforting glow of the sun, a bridge over which love crossed freely.
And I can't seem to cross over the darkness. I want to step over it, leap over it. I feel she wants me to. But I'm not prepared, I'm not equipped. It seems impossible.

Rebecca Luker passed away due to complications from ALS on Dec. 23, 2020, at the age of 59. Thirteen months after her diagnosis. Becca was complicated and serious, insanely beautiful and silly, and funny and sexy and strong and stubborn and brilliantly talented. She was my wife. We were partners for 23 years and married for over 20. Lucky me. When we first started dating people would say to me, "You're dating Rebecca Luker?" I knew what they meant, even if it stung. She was always appalled by those remarks because she would tell me that she was the lucky one in the relationship. Not true. I was.

She came to New York to sing on Broadway. And she did for many, many years. But she also came to New York to escape, as she often talked about, the difficulties of a girl growing up in the South. The fierce independence that brought her to NYC was the same strength that made her quite political. She organized buses to Washington in 1992 when Roe v. Wade was challenged. She painted signs that read, "Broadway for Choice!" and was as proud of that as any show she ever did.

She continued that progressive streak throughout her life, most recently on her Twitter feed regularly advocating for women's rights, ending racism and touting her favorite candidates. She was a political wonk, reading The New York Times cover to cover when we first met and more recently turning on CNN and MSNBC first thing in the morning. She railed against Trump and his acolytes and could debate anyone on American politics, citing facts and figures with an encyclopedic mind.

That same mind that remembered every candidate in every race also served her well as a musician. She could memorize a lyric in 20 minutes. By contrast, it takes me a week. She read music easily and could make the most beautiful sounds without even trying. That's not to say she didn't work hard, she did, but she had an ease with music and lyrics. They liked her and she liked them and they melted into one another very easily.

When I described her singing, I used to say, "She opens her mouth and her heart falls out." That's exactly how it felt. I know of no other singer who's had that same effect on me. She had some innate connection to her soul when she sang that made the listener instantly feel the deepest emotions. It made you understand why poets wrote about purity and beauty. It was simply that obvious. That perfect. That special. That connected.

When we first started dating we had a fight in her apartment on 71st Street and it ended by her throwing a clock at me, one of those old windup clocks that sat on a side table. She got so mad she hurled it at me, realized what she had done and then cried loudly, "I LOVED THAT CLOCK!!!" Thankfully, I ducked. She slammed the door and ran into the bedroom. I sheepishly followed her into the room and asked her why she'd gotten so upset. She was crying on the bed and as she wiped her eyes she said, "Because we're breaking up." I explained that we weren't breaking up, that we were just arguing. She said she hadn't really done that before in her other relationships. I told her I did that. And we did argue over the years, but mostly did our best to talk things out. I can honestly say we never went to bed angry at one another. We both made sure.

Early on, there was tension between us because I didn't trust her. I'd come from a particularly difficult marriage and didn't trust that anyone's fallback position could be kindness. But Becca's was. I didn't know how to deal with her overwhelming acceptance of who I was, warts and all. I'd never met anyone like her. For all her rejection of her roots, that Southern sweetness was just innate and allowed her to be completely herself at every moment. I quickly realized what a treasure she was and got over myself. But that was Becca, always herself. Whether she was meeting presidents, famous actors or talking to Paddy, the homeless fellow who lives up the block, she was always the same person. Nothing pretentious. Just warmth, kindness. Her heart shined out of her like a beacon. She literally had a glow around her.

We'd both been married before. Ours was the "second and last" she would say. My divorce took around three years before it was finally official. My attorney called me on a Tuesday, I hung up the phone, looked across the room at Becca and said smiling, "Let's get married." She answered without hesitation that she would love that. So the next day, we got our marriage license. In NYC you have to wait 48 hours after getting the license before you can actually get married. On Friday we went to City Hall and were married in a lightning-quick ceremony (along with hundreds of other people) by a lovely Puerto Rican woman who was a Justice of the Peace. People called me Mr. Luker all the time and I loved it.

Rebecca went from show to show, recorded album after album and worked her ass off. But it never seemed like a chore. She was living her dream and she knew it. We both were. We would meet after our respective shows at Joe Allen and have burgers and a round of beers. We couldn't wait to see one another. And it was like that for years. She was a marvelous stepmother to my sons, Alex and Zach. They loved her like their own and she loved them unconditionally. For god's sake, their stepmom was Maria Von Trapp, of course they loved her. We bought a little place in the Pocono mountains and built fires on cold nights, swam in the lake in the summers, cooked amazing meals for friends, laughed a lot and thoroughly enjoyed our lives.

We had the usual difficult life issues that people go through. Life was cruel and then kind. But the constant was this feeling that we felt safe together. In the last five years the life issues became more problematic and we were under a lot of stress. And that's when she got sick.

She tripped one day running for the bus, she said she "went straight down." She couldn't explain it. Then two weeks later it happened again, this time twisting her left ankle. She went to our PT, many health professionals, but her ankle and foot were steadily getting weaker. She had spinal stenosis surgery and we were sure that would solve the issue. But her whole leg started getting worse.

More doctors were followed by other experts as her symptoms worsened. We were both terribly worried about what was happening to her. I remember taking a shower on a Sunday evening and having a terrible feeling that when I got out of the shower she was going to tell me she had ALS. I just felt it in my gut. And sure enough she told me that her doctor had called (on a Sunday) to tell her this was a very real possibility. She was sure he was wrong, but I was haunted. Two weeks later they were sure.

As the months progressed she became weaker and weaker. Her entire left leg went, then her right. She never plateaued. It was just one steady decline. Her hips, her diaphragm, her shoulders, her elbows, forearms. When her hands stopped working she screamed in frustration. She said that it was what she'd been fearing most of all. She couldn't help me do anything anymore. She loved cooking and she was a marvelous chef. I'd learned to cook by watching her and now she couldn't even help me slice a tomato for our salad. Her hands just wouldn't work.

She fought so hard and held onto every muscle for as long as her body would allow. And despite her body failing so obviously, she was still hopeful. The doctors told us that she "had the slow-moving kind of ALS." But they'd obviously been mistaken. She was progressing so ridiculously fast that it took everyone by surprise. But still she was hopeful for some new trial medication to come along and save her life. She kept saying, "I see myself growing old, being an old woman. I just know it."

Two weeks before she passed she finally began to talk about her own death and asked how it might happen. She'd been in such denial until then. She spoke with her doctor and rejected his offer of a tracheotomy because she knew it would mean that she would never speak or swallow again. She was extremely weak but told him that she didn't want to live attached to a machine that way. She told him, "If I don't have my voice, I don't know who I am. My voice is everything I am. I'll take my chances." I broke down sobbing next to her when she said that. I've never witnessed anything so brave in my life.

In her last week, ALS took the two things that she loved more than anything; her ability to taste food and her voice. And so, in a way, she lived and died on her terms. If she couldn't do the things she loved the most, then she was ready to go. She'd fought so hard for so long. And she didn't complain, she remained positive and kind until the end.

When she was dying in the hospital I told her everything I wanted to say to her. Her eyes were halfway closed, pupils were dilated but I held them open and spoke to her intently. I told her that she'd been the most amazing wife, a wonderful mother to our sons, and that she'd left the world a better place because of her music and her beauty. She heard me. I know she did. Her eyes focused directly on me. She tried to respond as tears ran down my face and she did manage to acknowledge what I'd said with a sudden push of breath from the very back of her throat — which must have taken every ounce of strength she had.

She passed away about an hour and a half later. I wept like a baby, holding her. They asked me if I wanted to close her eyes and I did. She was my wife, I was going to do everything I could for her while they allowed me to stay. I removed the fucking respirator that she'd become attached to for the last two months, freed her of that and petted her beautiful face and hair. I left the hospital numb and remain so.

The amount of love we received during her battle was unbelievable. A rotation of about 25 friends were here almost 24/7 for months. They stayed late into the evening to help me put her to bed and arrived early every morning to help me get her ready for the day. There is simply no way I could ever properly thank them. Angels all. Our community really showed up for my girl. I'll always be grateful.

Since Becca's passing the outpouring of support and love still continues. It's a testament to the kind of person she was.

Two days ago, the homeless guy, Paddy, stopped me to tell me that Rebecca was in his daily prayers. She'd been kind to him. Even from her wheelchair she was kind. I was so moved by his words. She just had that effect on people. She made you want to be better. You just knew she was a special human being.

And then she sang … and you realized she was actually an angel.